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Minnesota should take a gamble on Zach Wilson

For nearly a decade, the Minnesota Vikings have overlooked the development of young quarterbacks, opting instead for Kirk Cousins’ consistent yet ordinary performances. However, with Cousins set to hit free agency after the 2023 season, the front office seems poised for a change in direction.

Former general manager Rick Spielman failed to solidify the team’s long-term stability at the position, which is why ownership went into a new direction with current analytically driven general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah now leading the front office. Minnesota truly hasn’t invested into youth at the position since drafting Teddy Bridewater in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

In 2016, Bridgewater’s career faced an unfortunate turn during training camp when he suffered a life threatening non-contact knee injury, causing a dislocation and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. The repercussions were immense, leading to a two-year absence from the game and arguably leaving a profound mark on the remainder of his NFL career.

Following Bridgewater’s season-ending injury, the team traded for Sam Bradford, but his time in Minnesota was plagued by injuries, limiting him to only 17 starts over two seasons. In 2017, the unexpected rise of Case Keenum led the team to its first NFC Championship game since 2009. However, Spielman opted to move on and sign Cousins to the league’s first fully guaranteed contract during the 2018 offseason.

Since his arrival in 2018, Cousins has brought much-needed stability to the quarterback position, leading the team to two playoff appearances and a 46-33-1 record. Over his five-year career with Minnesota, the front office has invested a substantial $150 million in fully guaranteed money in Cousins, yet the team has only managed to win one playoff game.

This upcoming season will most likely be Minnesota’s last ditch effort to make a deep playoff run with its roster as is. The team most likely will move off Cousins and hit the reset button, not necessarily rebuilding, but resetting. What exactly does that look like? More growing pains at the quarterback position, which likely result in the front office drafting a rookie signal caller or signing a mediocre stop gap option.

With extensions on the horizon for key players like Justin Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, Christian Darrisaw, and Danielle Hunter, this season becomes Minnesota’s final chance to mount a deep playoff run with their core intact. However, it’s likely that the team will part ways with Cousins and opt for a reset instead of a complete rebuild.

In the 2023 NFL Draft, Adofo-Mensah invested a fifth-round pick in BYU’s Jaren Hall, acknowledging that he is a project player requiring further development. Expecting him to step in as Cousins’ heir apparent without significant growth would be an unrealistic and unjustifiable expectation.

Meanwhile, the team has an intriguing alternative in Zach Wilson, Hall’s former teammate, who currently serves as the backup quarterback for the New York Jets. The team’s recent acquisition of former Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has cast doubt on Wilson’s future in New York, potentially making him available for trade.

Background

Wilson, 24, was selected second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft out of BYU by the New York Jets. His career hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far as he has a record of 8-14 as a starter, completing 55.2 percent of his passes for 4,022 yards and 15 touchdowns with 18 interceptions.

Wilson’s outstanding junior season at BYU had already garnered national attention from scouts, who saw him as a potential future star of the league. During this junior campaign, Wilson led BYU to an impressive 10-1 record, showcasing his superb accuracy with a notable 73.5 percent completion rate on his passes. He demonstrated his prowess by amassing 3,692 passing yards and a total of 43 touchdowns, all while maintaining exceptional ball control and throwing only three interceptions.

Since entering the league, Wilson’s NFL journey has been fraught with a multitude of difficulties, most notably characterized by a string of unfortunate events that have significantly hindered his progress on the field. One of the most concerning aspects has been the apparent loss of faith in him by his own teammates, leading to a palpable sense of discord within the locker room. The lack of unity and support in such a demanding and competitive environment has undoubtedly taken a toll on his confidence and overall performance

Reason For Optimism

Wilson has struggled early on in his career, but since entering the league, his skill group and coaching staff haven’t necessarily done him any favors. During his rookie season, Wilson’s top three pass catchers were Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Keelan Cole, with the team’s receiving leader being Moore with only 538 yards.

In Wilson’s two NFL seasons, his offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur utilized the Shanahan scheme, a popular choice adopted by numerous offensive coaches in the league. However, LaFleur’s repetitive use of empty formations, where the quarterback is left alone in the backfield, deserves more criticism than any other offensive play caller in the league. This reliance on empty formations made Wilson susceptible to substantial pressure, leading to a total of 67 sacks over the two seasons, averaging three sacks per game.

Wilson still has potential, while New York may have given up on him, if anyone can unlock his game and take it to the next level, it’s O’Connell. Since entering the league as the former No. 2 overall pick, Wilson has displayed promising moments that inspire optimism. In one notable instance during his rookie season against the Tennessee Titans, he rolled out to his right, delivering a 50-yard pass on the run, perfectly threading it between two defenders and into the end zone for the score.

Another great read by Wilson took place against the Buffalo Bills during his rookie season, where he stepped back in the pocket and made a quick read, throwing into a tight window between two Buffalo defenders. Wilson made the quick progression and read, which resulted in the big gain. Wilson showed a display of confidence and comfort, something he lacked during his second season.

During his time at BYU, Wilson consistently showcased a captivating performance, drawing frequent comparisons to Patrick Mahomes. One particular highlight came during the week seven matchup against Western Kentucky, where Wilson’s pocket collapsed, testing his poise and awareness. Without hesitation, he demonstrated quick footwork, stepping up confidently to avoid pressure. In a remarkable display of arm strength and accuracy, he effortlessly launched a 60-yard pass into tight coverage between two defenders, finding his receiver with pure precision.

How to Acquire Wilson

Although general manager Joe Douglas hasn’t publicly made Wilson available for trade, there is widespread speculation within the league that he could be acquired for the right offer. It’s safe to assume that Douglas wouldn’t consider trading Wilson for a late day three pick, so any potential trade discussions would likely begin with a starting price of at least a fourth-round pick.

Minnesota is set to own seven 2024 draft picks, with two picks in the fourth round. As part of the Hockenson trade, Detroit’s fifth-round conditional pick will turn into a fourth because Minnesota did not win a playoff game last season. Adofo-Mensah has established a reputation for acquiring former first-round picks with untapped potential, emphasizing a low-risk, high-reward approach.

As evidenced by last season’s acquisitions of former first-round picks Hockenson and Jalen Reagor via trade, he has shown a willingness to invest in players with promising upside. Another example would be with the recent offseason signing of former New Orleans Saints edge rusher Marcus Davenport. Given this track record, it’s entirely plausible that Minnesota could explore the opportunity to buy low on Wilson by sending a 2024 fourth-round pick.

Minnesota’s plan at quarterback beyond 2023 remains unclear and as this season approaches, it could be well worth the gamble for Adofo-Mensah to take a chance on Wilson, which would allow him an entire season to learn the system. The former second overall pick hasn’t lived up to expectations in a large market such as New York, so his transition to a smaller market such as Minnesota could be a great next step in his NFL journey.

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